‘Thinking within the box” — that is the label that should be prominently displayed on the 48 boxes that contain American writer and filmmaker Woody Allen’s short stories, essays, articles, prose pieces, plays, and screenplays, all of which are part of the archives in Princeton University’s Firestone Library.
The boxes and their contents are the catalyst for an event with Allen, set for Sunday, October 27, as well as a weeklong exhibition of a sampling of his writing.
Containing works ranging from the well known — if not part of American culture — to those unpublished or unproduced, the boxes are silent stages, screens, pages, and thoughts of one of the most influential and accomplished American literary artists, one whose use of humor has made readers and audiences laugh and reflect.
Allen’s work includes writing for pioneer television performer Sid Caesar in 1950s, working as a stand-up comedian and guest on network television in the 1960s, writing successful Broadway shows, and then establishing himself as a screenplay writer and director, receiving four Academy Awards: Best Director and Best Original Screenplay for “Annie Hall” (1978), Best Original Screenplay for “Hannah and Her Sisters” (1987), and Best Screenplay for “Midnight in Paris” (2012).
Upon first donating his papers to Princeton in 1980 Allen wrote, “When the idea of donating them to a university came up, Princeton was immediately thought of because of very kind interest by the school and Mr. Laurence Rockefeller,” the Princeton graduate, venture capitalist, philanthropist grandson of John D. Rockefeller.
“The papers show the stages of crafting film scripts, from handwritten drafts and notes on yellow legal pads to successive corrected typescripts and bound mimeographed production scripts. But Allen has also been a contributor in the New Yorker, the New Republic, Kenyon Review, and other magazines. The papers contain drafts, typescripts, and proofs of articles, short stories, plays, and other works,” note university sources.
Allen, unavailable for interviews, says in a previously printed discussion about his varied writings, “My experience has been that writing for the different mediums are very separate undertakings. Writing for the stage is completely different from writing for film, and both are completely different from writing prose. The most demanding is writing prose, I think, because when you’re finished, it’s the end product. You can’t change it. In a play, it’s far from the end product. The script serves as a vehicle for the actors and director to develop characters. With films, I just scribble a couple of notes for a scene. You don’t have to do any writing at all; you just have your notes for the scene, which are written with the actors and the camera in mind. The actual script is a necessity for casting and budgeting, but the end product often doesn’t bear much resemblance to the script — at least in my case.”
The Bronx-born and Brooklyn-raised writer (born Allan Stewart Konigsberg on December 1, 1935) says his impulse to write was always with him, “Before I could read. I’d always wanted to write. Before that — I made up tales. I was always creating stories.” Although he attended New York University and City College of New York, he is mainly self-taught and has no degree beyond high school.
His biggest influences, he says, have been the films of Swedish director Ingmar Bergman and the Marx Brothers, adding that he has “no compunction stealing from” Swedish playwright August Strindberg, Russian playwright Anton Chekhov, American humorist S.J. Perelman, playwright Moss Hart, New York sports columnist Jimmy Cannon, Italian film director Federico Fellini, and the writers for American comedian Bob Hope (of whom Allen says “I’m practically a plagiarist”).
“As a creative person, I’ve never been interested in politics or any of the solvable things. What interested me were always the unsolvable problems: the finiteness of life and the sense of meaninglessness and despair and the inability to communicate. The difficulty in falling in love and maintaining it,” he says.
To commemorate the relationship with Princeton University, Allen will come to Richardson Auditorium on the Princeton campus on Sunday, October 27, and discuss his work before a live audience with Maria Di Battista, Princeton University professor of English and author of the 2003 book “Fast Talking Dames.” The Yale University Press publication examines the emergence of the witty, sassy, and quick-thinking women popular in 1930s Hollywood comedies.
The visit will also be marked by a display of Allen’s screenplays “What’s New, Pussycat?” (1965), “Sleeper” (1973), “Annie Hall” (1977), “Manhattan” (1979), “The Purple Rose of Cairo” (1985), “Hannah and Her Sisters” (1986), “Vicki Cristina Barcelona” (2008), and “Midnight in Paris” (2010), on view now through Monday, October 28, at Firestone Library.
Allen’s archives are part of the Princeton University Library’s Department of Rare Books and Special Collections’ Manuscripts Division — an estimated 8,500 linear feet (or 1.6 miles) of materials spanning 5,000 years of recorded history.
Materials range from 1,300 cuneiform tablets, 10,000 handwritten Islamic documents, the papers of the Stockton and Livingston families, and historic autographs of Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Lincoln, and other important historic figures.
Literary highlights include, in addition to a first edition of James Joyce’s “Ulysses” (published by Princeton’s Sylvia Beach), 1,131 letters from T. S. Eliot to Emily Hale (the largest single collection of the poet’s letters in the world and which are sealed until January 1, 2020) and 550 documents related to American novelist (and Princeton alumnus) F. Scott Fitzgerald, including one of the library’s most valuable holdings, a manuscript of “The Great Gatsby.”
Allen’s writings now mingle with the manuscripts by American playwrights Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams as well as English masters Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Oscar Wilde, and George Bernard Shaw.
According to Don C. Skemer, the Bronx-born curator of manuscripts since 1991, “The papers have come in stages. Princeton approached him about the subject around 1980, and Woody Allen responded positively, as he has since. We receive additional papers as gifts when Woody Allen is ready to send them to us.”
While the papers are open to research, “the only restriction is that nothing may be photoduplicated or copied. Most of our researchers are university faculty and students, either from Princeton or visitors. But Woody Allen’s papers also attract admirers of his work and writing,” says Skemer.
No clear monetary value has been placed on the collection, but Skemer feels that value is in their availability. “The papers let you see Woody Allen as a scriptwriter and author, writing successive drafts of his works. You see his working methods, writing by hand, revising scissors-and-paste typescripts by hand, and so on. It’s the creative mind at work.”
Skemer, who assists researchers from all over the world to study the library’s collection, is also a man fascinated by the power of words and the author of the 2006 book “Binding Words: Textual Amulets in the Middle Ages, Magic in History.”
“My book is about the power of words, when the people believe in the magical efficacy of written words and therefore use them protectively, almost like a shield. Of course, the power of words can be seen in many other places and contexts,” he says.
One of those places is the archive where words wait to speak, perhaps in ways not understood by the speakers and writers. For example, take Allen’s line from a recent interview, “What people who don’t write don’t understand is that they think you make up the line consciously — but you don’t. It proceeds from your unconscious. So it’s the same surprise to you when it emerges as it is to the audience when the comic says it. I don’t think of the joke and then say it. I say it and then realize what I’ve said. And I laugh at it, because I’m hearing it for the first time myself.”
The jokes and the thinking now wait in the boxes for others to discover.
Question and Answer Session with Woody Allen, Richardson Auditorium, Princeton University. Sunday, October 27, 4 p.m. Organized by the Friends of the Princeton University Library. Tickets reserved for Friends of the Princeton University Library have been exhausted. www.fpul.org.
Exhibition of selection of Woody Allen’s film scripts, Firestone Library, Princeton University. Through Monday, October 28, exhibition gallery hours, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. library.princeton.edu.